Milton and Maternal Mortality by Louis Schwartz. Cambridge U. Press, 2009. Pp.282. Paper $36.99.
This is a smart, elegant book that powerfully illuminates our understanding of Milton and women. It accomplishes this by focusing upon a historical problem: the high rate of maternal mortality in seventeenth-century London. This was, of course, a problem of considerable personal import to John Milton, who witnessed the childbirth death of two of his three wives. In the hands of a less thoughtful critic, this book could have exemplified a certain type of reductive new historicist criticism. But Milton and Maternal Mortality is the result of Schwartz's long engagement with this subject and his analysis is consistently nuanced, complex, and thought provoking.
Milton and Maternal Mortality, which won the James Holly Hanford Book Award from the Milton Society of America in 2010, is divided into three parts. The first three chapters provide a historical framework, as Schwartz outlines the seventeenth-century understanding of unproblematic childbirth, discusses how and why "things went wrong," and articulates seventeenth-century religious understandings of maternal mortality. In these chapters, Schwartz brings together material from obstetric manuals, religious discourses, and demographic analyses to provide a comprehensive account of the discourses surrounding seventeenth-century childbirth. (I could imagine assigning these chapters profitably in a course on early modern women writers.) But what I especially admire about these chapters is Schwartz's recognition that the religious discourses surrounding childbirth offered women (and early modern culture generally) a hermeneutic framework through which they could conceptualize the dangers of childbirth positively, as an act of voluntary submission to the divine will.
Schwartz's greatest strength lies in his sensitive readings of Milton's poetry. The second section explores the representation of maternal mortality in Milton's early poetry, while the remainder of the book examines Milton's later poetic work. Schwartz's approach allows him to provide valuable insights into works not typically considered relevant to the problem of maternal mortality (such as "On Shakespear"), but his best readings concern texts in which Milton explicitly grapples with the problem of childbirth death. Schwartz's analysis of the "Epitaph for the Marchioness of Winchester," for example, addresses this little-discussed poem both in terms of its literary accomplishment and its relevance to the ongoing poetic anxieties that Milton experienced early in his career. …